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The Babur Nama

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 1:11 AM
AkbarnamaThe Babur Nama reflects the character and interests of the author, Zehir-ed-Din Muhammad Babur. Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, is regarded as one of the most romantic and interesting personalities of Asian history. He was a man of indomitable will, a great soldier, and an inspiring leader. But unlike most men of action he was also a man of letters with fine literary taste and fastidious critical perception. In Persian, he was an accomplished poet, and in his mother-tongue, the Turki, he was master of a simple forceful style.

He was conscious of his own importance and kept a record of his daily activities in the form of brief notes. He made use of these notes when soon after the capture of Chanderi on 29 January, 1528; he decided to write his Memoirs. He chose one of the many gardens around Agra that he had been creating ever since he had proclaimed himself the padshah of Hindustan and dictated his memoirs, almost continuously till his death on 26 December, 1530. A painting shows him dictating his memoirs to a scribe. In less than three years, he succeeded in giving final form to his autobiography.

Ibrahim Adil Shah with a ladyAt times Babur was so engrossed in this work that he forgot his surroundings completely. According to his daughter, Gulbadan, once when he was busy on his autobiography a storm blew up and the tent in which he was dictating came down on his head with the result that "sections and book were drenched under water and gathered together with much difficulty." But he attached such a great importance to rescuing the papers that he with the help of his daughter "laid them in the folds of a woolen throne carpet, put this on the throne, and on it piled blankets and then kindled a fire inspite of the wet" and occupied himself "till shot of day drying folios and sections."

Babur's autobiography to which he had perhaps himself given the title of Babur Wind was written "in the purest dialect of the Turki language. It is reckoned among the most enthralling and romantic works in the literature of all times. It makes a delightful reading and "deservedly holds a high place in the history of human literature."

Babur Nama was preserved as a valuable treasure in the Royal Library by all the five successors of Babur, who, together with him, are known as the Great Mughals of Indian history. In fact each one of them showed his adoration for the Nama in one form or the other. Humayun on ascending the throne ordered All'u-l-Katib to copy his father's Turki book and see to it that the work was finished in less than a month and a half. Perhaps not fully satisfied with this hurriedly done copy, during the next ten years that he held the reins of the Empire, he had another copy of the Babur Nama prepared. 

Prince admiring the HorseHumayun carried Babur's original manuscript with him to exile from 1551 to 1555 and used his leisure moments to annotate it. Akbar showed his veneration for the book by ordering, Khan-i-Khana Abdur Rahim to translate it into Persian. Abdur Rahim is recorded to have finished the assignment in 1589 when he presented to Akbar, its Persian version under the title Waquit-i-Baburi. Jahangir retouched a copy of the Babur Nama which he tried to annotate and complete by supplying the missing links. ShahJahan adored the book. Among the select books that he would daily hear being recited to him before going to sleep was the Babur Nama. Aurangzeb got inscribed a number of Babur Nam& from the original preserved in the Royal Library and sent them to many places of importance in his rapidly expanding empire.

It appears that inspite of a brilliant translation in Persian available since 1589 it was the Turki Babur Nama that held the place of honour in the Royal Library of the Mughal Emperors. It seems something of an irony, therefore, that its original should have been lost and unlike the Persian Waquit-i-Baburi should have been unavailable even in copy to the European scholars when they started taking interest in Babur's autobiography. It is surmised that the original of the Babur Nãmä was either destroyed in the sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739 or burnt during the Mutiny in that city in 1857. The Persian Waquit-i-Baburi, however, escaped either of those two fates and attracted the attention of the European indologists. The first European Indologists to be interested in Babur, as in other personalities of Mughal period of Indian history, were almost all Scots, e.g. Dr Leyden, William Erskine, John Malcolm and Mountstuart Elphinstone.

BaburIn the early years of the nineteenth century when the British interest in the Mughals and their history was acquiring depth, a translation of the Waquit-i-Baburi, was started by Dr Leyden. He seems to have liked the work and did lot of jottings from Waquit-i-Baburi when Elphinstone arrived at Calcutta and sent him the Babur Nama which he had purchased at Peshawar in 1810. The Babur Nãmã in Turkish slackened Leyden's enthusiasm for the work that he had been doing and he left the translation of Waquit-i-Baburi only partially done before his death in 1811. What Leyden had left half done was completed by Erskine. Perhaps without knowing that Leyden was engaged in the translation of Waquit-i-Baburi, Erskine had also been busy translating it but just as he was thinking of giving final touches to his translation, he received all the jottings and papers of Leyden passed on to him after the latter's death in Java in 1811. The arrival of Leyden papers forced Erskine to revise the work that he had al-ready done and it kept him busy for another five years. It was only in 1816 now that he passed on the twice done translation to England to be published in the joint name of Leyden and him-self under the title Memoirs of Babur. A little time before he had done that like Leyden five years earlier, he too received the Babur Nama from Elphinstone but, possibly because he was not well-versed in Turki or felt too tired to begin the translation, already done twice by him, for the third time, made no use of the Turki manuscript. The Memoirs of Babur in Leyden and Erskine's name finally published in 1826 were consequently rightly looked upon by the indologists all over Europe as a translation of a translation of Babur's memoirs.

Women Bathing in a Lake - 18th Century Mughal PaintingThe Memoirs of Babur was looked upon as a valuable contribution to understanding Babur. Its extracts were translated and published in German by A. Kaiser in 1828 as Denkwurd-ingkeiton des Zahir-uddin Muhammad Babur. In 1844, R. M. Galdeff not only based his The Life of Babur on Leyden and Erskine's Memoirs of Babur but further showed the importance in which he held the latter work by publishing An Abridgement of the Memoirs, a work which was a summary of Leyden and Erskine's work published eighteen years earlier.

It was inevitable that the more the Leyden and Erskine's work was read, the greater should be the demand for the original Turki Babur Nama and some translation in a European language done directly from it. This demand was mistakenly believed to have been satisfied by De Courteille who published in 1871 Les Memoirs de Biz-bur in French. De Courteille had done his translation from Illminski's edited version of one Kehr's Turki transcript of the Babur Nama lying at Petersberg but without knowing that Kehr's copy was not made from any Babur Nama but an original work in Turki by one Timur-pulad, presented to one of the members of the Russian Government in pursuance of the policy of Peter the Great to improve Russian relations with the numerous Khanates in Central Asia. When the mission returned to Petersberg, the member of the mission who had received Timur-pulad's manuscript passed it on to Petersberg Library in the Foreign Office. There it was noticed by one Kehr, a teacher in the School of Oriental Studies at Petersberg. Kehr transcribed it as also translated it into Latin. Because he had put the two side by side, Kehr's transcript begun to attract more scholars than Timur-pulad's. In 1857 Illminski made Kehr's transcript as the basis for preparing an indexed volume of what he believed was the Turkish Babur Nama. What had been brought out by De Courteille was a French translation of Illminski work minus the latter's edited remarks. And, since, as subsequently discovered, Timur-pulad's work was not Babur Nama in Turki but at the best a retranslation in Turki of the Persian translation of that done by Erskine four decades earlier.

Second Battle of Panipat painting of AkbarIt was left to Mrs. A. S. Beveridge to do the translation into English from a genuine copy Turki Babur Nama. What made it possible for her to do that was firstly the discovery of a genuine Turki copy of the Babur Nama in Hyderabad and secondly her success in not only procuring it for herself for some time but also have a number of fascimiles made of it by the E. J. Wilkinson Gibb Trust. These fascimiles enabled Mrs. Beveridge to prove to scholars that the Hyderabad Babur Nama surpassed both in volume and quality, all other Babur Nama. She wrote a series of articles in the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society between 1900 and 1908 and finally came out with its English translation in 1926. It is this translation which I have utilized in explaining the contents of paintings.

"Babur's Memoirs form one of the best and most faithful pieces of autobiography extant" wrote Dowson. "They are entirely superior to the hypocritical revelations of Timur, and the pompous declarations of Jahangir not inferior in any respect to the Expeditions of Xenophon, and rank but little below the commentaries of Caesar." He further wrote "These Memoirs are the best Memorial of the life and reign of the frank and jovial conqueror; they are ever fresh and will long continue to be read with interest and pleasure."

MiniaturesAs a picture of the life of an Eastern sovereign in court and camp, the book stands unrivalled among Oriental autobiographies. "It is almost the only specimen of real history in Asia... In Babur Nama the figures, dresses, habits, and tastes, of each individual introduced are described with such minuteness and reality that we seem to live among them, and to know their persons as well as we do their characters. His descriptions of the countries visited, their scenery, climate, productions, and works of art are more full and accurate than will, perhaps, be found in equal space in any modern traveller."

"His Memoirs are no rough soldier's diary, full of marches and counter-marches;... they contain the personal impressions and acute reflections of a cultivated man of the world, well read in Eastern literature, a close and curious observer, quick in perception, a discerning judge of persons, and a devoted lover of nature.. .The utter frankness of self-revelation, the unconscious portraiture of all his virtues and follies; his obvious truthfulness and fine sense of humour give the Memoirs an authority which is equal to their charm."

CharbaghIt is in truthful narration of events of his personal life that the value of the Babur Nama lies. Like most adolescents Babur also passed through a homosexual phase. He thus describes his love for a boy. "At this time there happened to be a lad belonging to the camp-bazaar, named Baburi. There was an odd sort of coincidence in our names. Sometimes it happened that Baburi came to visit me; when, from shame and modesty, I found myself unable to look him direct in the face. How then is it to be supposed that I could amuse him with conversation or a disclosure of my passion? From intoxication and confusion of mind I was unable to thank him for his visit; it is not therefore to be imagined that I had power to reproach him with his departure. I had not even self-command enough to receive him with the common forms of politeness. One day while this affection and attachment lasted, I was by chance passing through a narrow lane with only a few attendants, when, of a sudden, I met Baburi face to face. Such was the impression produced on me by this encounter that I almost fell to pieces. I had not the power to meet his eyes, or to articulate a single word. With great confusion and shame I passed on and left him, remembering the verses of Muhammad Salih:

"I am abashed whenever T see my love;
My companions look to me, and I look another way."

Mugal Miniatuer painting"The verses were wonderfully suited to my situation. From the violence of my passion and the effervescence of youth and madness, I used to stroll bare-headed and barefoot through lane and street, garden and orchard, neglecting the attentions due to friend and stranger; and the respect due to myself and others."

"Babur's Memoirs reveal the founder of the Mughal rule in India as a constant and jovial toper who had many a drinking party which were as important to him as his bottles or negotiations. When we see him move with perfect ease and familiarity among his company in these drinking parties we forget the prince in the man; and start sharing the temptations that generally led Babur to those excesses a shady wood, a hill with a fine prospect, or of a boat floating down a river; and enjoy the amusements with which they are accompanied, extemporary verses, recitations in Turki and Persian, with sometimes a song, and often a contest of repartee.

Babur hunting Rhinoceros near Peshawar, Baburnama"On closing the Memoirs, we have in our possession a Babur who is more real than political record would make him. We have a Babur who, after many many trials of a long life, retains the same kind and affectionate heart, and the same easy and sociable temper with which he had set out on his career and in whom the possession of power and grandeur had neither blunted the delicacy of his taste, nor diminished the sensibility to the enjoyment of nature and imagination."

To Lane-Poole "Babur's Memoirs are no rough soldier's chronicles of marches, 'Saps, wines, blinds, zabions, palisades, revelings, half-moons and such trumpery'; they contain the personal impressions and acute reflections of a cultivated man of the world, well read in Eastern literature, a close and curious observer, quick in preception, discerning judge of men who was well able to express his thoughts and observations in clear and vigorous language."

Apart from its value as a source book of history, the importance of the Babur Nama lies in the fact that it is the first book on Natural History of India. Babur had keen sense of observation and he describes the physical features of the country, its people, animals, birds, and vegetation with precision and brevity. The value of some of the illustrations of the Babur Nama lies in the fact that these are the first natural history paintings in India.

Writer – M.S. Randhawa
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